In 1891 Fred and I took to bicycling and our lives were greatly enlarged thereby. The so-called “safety bicycles” attracted my husband more than the “penny-farthing” had, and the dropped frame adapted it to the skirted sex. By means of these machnes we were able, in ten minutes, to leave Manchester behind, and we scoured the Cheshire and Derbyshire lanes with a radius of twenty miles. There was only one other woman in our part of Manchester who took to bicycling in the same year, and I was frowned on by some of the college ladies until royal ladies took to riding round a London park, and I was suddenly in the fashion.
Near Manchester the boisterous mill-hands would play pranks on me, linking arms across the road to upset me. The only way to cope with this was to avoid looking at them and, putting down my head, charge full tilt, when they would scatter. In London, bus drivers were not above flicking at me with the whip, and cabmen thought it fun to converge upon me from behind. I was once pulled off by my skirt in a Notting Hill slum, and felt a bit scared till a bright idea struck me. I said to the loutish lad who had seized my handle-bar, “I say, they seem rather a rough lot here. I wonder whether you would kindly help me out?” He instantly clutched my arm with his other hand, and bustling along with great dignity shouted, “Now then! Make room for the lady can’t you?” He saw me through and helped me to re-mount with the recommendation “Cut away now, quick!” And I did.
My long skirt was a nuisance and even a danger. It is an unpleasant experience to be hurled on to stone setts and find that one’s skirt has been so tightly wound round the pedal that one cannot even get up enough to unwind it. But I never had the courage to ride in breeches except at hight. Then, oh then, I sang, jubilating with Clärchen: “Welch Freud’ ohne Ende Ein Mannsbild zu sein!” (What glorious rapture to be a he-man!) In Dieppe we saw fashionable women in wide breeches like Dutchmen, strolling about the Casino grounds. But that fashion never caught on here.
Our first machines had solid tyres and only one gear, and no hand-brake or free-wheel. Yet we toured many miles on them. Some of our tours were in Norfolk and others in Warwickshire, the Western Highlands and Normandy. I never rode more than sixty-five miles in one day, but we used to do our forty and fity fairly often. Here again, owing to my husband’s weak knee, I was not a gret handicap to him. I gave up cycling after an operation I had in 1915, but the increase in motor traffic would, anyhow, have necessitated this sacrifice.
Helena Swanwick I Have Been Young Victor Gollancz 1935